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November 21st, 2018

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Where a new GOP is emgerging, worrying its establishment

David Weigel

By David Weigel

Published Oct. 12, 2015

Presidential candidate and senator Lindsey Graham is the face of the GOP establishment.

COLUMBIA, S.C. - Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., jumped out of a gray SUV and got back to work. Joined by a small staff and a few fellow Republicans, he'd taken an aerial tour to see Hurricane Joaquin's flood damage to South Carolina. Now, he was hitting the ground to meet its victims, walking down the sloping streets of a neighborhood where each house was being emptied before the mold could conquer it.

"Everybody gripes about the government until they need it - sort of like a lawyer," said Graham, the state's senior senator and a struggling candidate for president who is among the diminishing number of Republicans still talking about the great things government can do.

In a week that began with Hurricane Joaquin's floods and ended with the House Republican caucus rejecting the heir apparent to House Speaker John Boehner, flood relief stood out as an ironic topic in this key early nominating state. Skepticism of Washington and fear of federal power, always strong here, have rarely been stronger. Several of South Carolina's Republican members of Congress are among the leaders of the rebellion underway inside the GOP.

All of it cements the uncertainty pervading the Republican presidential nominating contest - here and across the country. Much like in Washington, where the abrupt withdrawal from the speaker's race of Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., signaled total party chaos, the view is fading that, eventually, this presidential race will get back to normal.

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who recently called South Carolina a "lock," is at 5.7 percent here, according to the Real Clear Politics average. That's good enough for only fifth place, 28 points behind frontrunner Donald Trump and 12 behind former neurosurgeon Ben Carson. Four years ago, on his way to losing the state primary, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney never polled lower than 13 percent. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., another establishment favorite who is ahead of Bush nationally and rising in recent polls, is currently even further behind in South Carolina, with a RealClearPolitics average of just 5 percent.

"The pattern of crowning the nominee has been broken," said Barry Wynn, a former South Carolina GOP chairman whose office is festooned with Bush memorabilia, down to a "I Miss W" coffee mug.

"The voters are a little angrier with establishment Republicans than they have been," Wynn said. "They're looking for a different type of candidate." Of Carson and Trump, he added: "I don't think that would have happened 10 years ago. I don't even think it could have happened four years ago."

In recent weeks, Bush and his allies have looked at South Carolina as a state that could break the fever of the Republican primaries. "I'm going to win South Carolina," Bush told reporters last month. "Take it to the bank."

But how some of his supporters planned to do it revealed how little they may understand of what's happening. Donors and Bush family friends told the New York Times that former President George W. Bush would be a welcome presence in South Carolina; former party chairman Katon Dawson suggested that W "could win the race" for his brother.

Graham agreed with that, against self-interest. "The most popular Republican is George W. Bush," he said. "I do polling. I know."

Many in the grassroots see it differently. A voter who preferred Bush's presidency to Obama's is not necessarily ready for a Bush restoration.

"I tell ya, in retrospect, I don't think we got a lot from George W. Bush," said state senator Lee Bright, a 2014 primary opponent of Graham who now co-chairs the South Carolina presidential campaign of Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. "You'd hope with the justices he appointed we'd see some improvement. We didn't. Bush definitely didn't move the ball for conservatives. If he'd have done half as much for conservatives as Obama did for liberals, anybody named Bush would have been our next president."

Even some Bush allies concede that the state has evolved, and the base has shifted right, since the days when South Carolina was known for affirming the party's nominee. In 1980, 1988, 1996, 2000, and 2008, the state's primary electorate voted for the candidate backed by the Republican establishment. In 2012, it voted for Newt Gingrich.

There is no sign that it has moderated since. The Gingrich win, and polling of the state's February 20 primary, have revealed just how little control the establishment now has in the state. And few realities illustrate the point than the fallen stature of the Bush family.

One problem for the establishment is a definition of "conservative" that has shifted between Bush campaigns. In 2000, George W. Bush could win South Carolina without major concessions to the right, with an education policy that relied on the federal government to write and enforce standards. Anything that sounds like a federal standard is anathema to South Carolina Republicans now.

That was well known to establishment Republicans at the start of the campaign, but the issues that have stumped them in South Carolina have seemingly zoomed in from alternate realities. For months, conservative voters have asked candidates what they'd do to prevent radical elements from entering the country if refugees are resettled in the state.

The issue has not been confined to a fringe. "Do any of the refugees to be resettled in the Spartanburg area have criminal convictions?" Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC) asked the State Department in a July open letter. "If so, for what crimes has each been convicted?" In an interview, the 2008 winner of the primary, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), said that he understood why residents might worry about radical elements sneaking in.

"If I were Baghdadi, I'd have told a few of these young men, head on out with these refugees," said McCain. "We have to have a screening process that people can trust. You should be worried unless there's a screening process that can make absolutely certain that you're not having terrorists moving into your neighborhood."

Establishment candidates are not answering those concerns - but the first-time candidates are. Carson's campaign, which has been covered as a perpetual motion machine of gaffes, is growing in South Carolina under the leadership of Ruth Sherlock, a one-time Republican National Committee staffer who worked for Newt Gingrich in 2012.

"You can get all the figureheads to endorse you, but the figureheads only have one vote each," Sherlock said at the Carson campaign's office in Greenville, one of four that will open this autumn. "When you have a grassroots groundswell, that's how people win. Newt's campaign didn't have all the endorsements. Romney did. And we won."

The Carson campaign sees the potential Republican electorate as a growing, shifting mass. South Carolina, like the rest of the South, has seen Republican primaries swell as voters move in or conservative Democrats bolt the party of President Obama. The 2012 primary, with more than 600,000 votes cast, was the largest in history. When Carson hits South Carolina, he seeks out black churches to campaign in. The week after Hurricane Joaquin, Carson dispatched volunteers, in unmistakable Ben 2016 T-shirts, to help with food banks.

There is little innovation like that in the establishment lanes of the primary - and those lanes are crowded by the presence of Lindsey Graham. While his campaign has failed to gain traction, and while South Carolina polls show him trailing badly, Graham has locked up some of the state's reliable Republican donors. "I have great respect for Governor Jeb Bush, and I had an early conversation with him," said former Ambassador David Wilkins earlier this year - ambassador, because of an appointment from the last president Bush. "But Lindsey Graham and I have been good friends since 1992. "

The Graham conundrum, unlike any of the establishment's other problems, is easy to imagine fixing. If Graham drops out of the race, the money and validators would be freed up to pick someone else.

Whether that would change the trajectory of current polling is another matter. The Gingrich win of 2012 came despite the alignments of the establishment. Then-Senator Jim DeMint endorsed Mitt Romney more than a year before the 2008 primary; Gov. Nikki Haley endorsed Romney in the run-up to 2012. Romney never came close to victory. This year, the endorsement of Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., for Rand Paul is being seen as Mulvaney staying out of the real fray. Gowdy, one of the most popular figures in the state, is refusing to endorse anyone.

"There was a dislocation, because of the Great Recession, that made the electorate much different than the one that supported George W. Bush," said Bob Inglis, a more moderate Republican congressman defeated by Gowdy in a 2010 primary. "Bush could talk about education, or about prescription drug coverage. Then came 9/11, and then came the crash. Fast forward to 2016, where the economy is growing, but wages aren't. We really thought the anger would be passing as the economy improved, but then along came Donald Trump, and he's capturing this anger in a way the people who've been elected are not."

Back in his office, a signed picture of Jeb peering over his shoulder, Wynn suggested a few ways that the party's Brahmins could consolidate, with the caveat that no one had been able to do it right for years. Carroll Campbell, the second Republican governor of the state since Reconstruction, built the network that once elevated establishment candidates.

"There's no Carroll Campbell today," said Wynn. "Gov. Haley isn't interested in building the kind of organization he built. [Sen.] Tim Scott is vetting everyone, not organizing around one candidate. If those congressmen kind of got together - if they said, look, it would be in our interest to pick up an oar and start paddling, that might create a kind of Campbell effect. But that's not happening unless someone drops out."

Four months before the primary, 15 candidates are refusing to offer that favor.

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